By Mahari Bennett
The thing about being young is
The thing about being young and queer is
The thing about being young and queer and brown is
The thing about being young and queer and brown and female is
You can’t forget that you are all of these things. And that sometimes they hate each other.
I can’t forget how white gay men will still call me slurs.
I can’t forget how my own family would disown me for tradition.
I can’t forget that I’m expected to get married and have kids with a man.
I can’t forget that I’m too young to own an apartment or have a job and if I get kicked out, I’m screwed.
I’m not the only one who struggles with this. There are young, brown, queer, women all over the world who face the same problems if not more. Our voices are tumbled together, compressed, flattened out into a brown stripe on a rainbow flag that people still refuse to acknowledge.
I don’t know how to write about being queer without everything else that comes with it. Because I can’t separate them. I can’t forget. And I don’t want to.
Mahari Bennett is based in North Carolina. Follow on Instagram at @mahari_dreaming.
By Eddy Boudel Tan
Sebastien was twenty-five when they met.
Jérôme St-Germain had just moved back to Petit Géant after several years in Montréal. The people in town remembered him being a bookish boy, peculiar and reserved. They were surprised to see him return as an attractive young man with easy charm and a confident style. The town was happy to welcome an eligible bachelor.
Sebastien was freelancing for the local newspaper at the time, mostly shooting fundraisers and hockey tournaments. Jérôme found him peering through the viewfinder of his camera while on assignment at the local college’s graduation ceremony. The diplomas had been handed out, the mortarboards had been thrown. The young graduates now clustered together in optimistic groups.
“I hear you’re the town’s star photographer,” Jérôme said with a smile. He appeared tidy and down-to-earth. His hair was a dense sweep of chestnut. Behind the thin frames of his glasses were two penetrating grey eyes tinged with blue like pools of rainwater.
“That is definitely an overstatement,” Sebastien responded. “I’m just the only guy in town who knows what an aperture is.”
The handsome stranger laughed. He crossed his arms and scanned the gymnasium, which was filled with electric blue gowns and bright faces. “I went to this school almost a decade ago. It hasn’t changed a bit. They still haven’t fixed that.” His head nodded toward a domed lamp hanging from the ceiling that was dark, unlike the others.
“I used to go here, too. I remember you.”
Jérôme turned to him, surprised. “Aren’t you a few years younger?”
“You hosted an art show in the café to raise money for the class trip to Europe. You painted sea monsters. There was one that looked like a man with octopus tentacles instead of legs. I loved it.”
“I’m glad someone appreciated it. The genteel denizens of Petit Géant seemed more disturbed than anything else. I suppose that’s what I get for showcasing art in a cultural black hole.” He looked at the floor with a nostalgic expression before his eyes shot up to Sebastien. “No offence!”
He laughed. “None taken. I have no attachment to this place. It’s just a cage to me.”
Jérôme adjusted his wool blazer and looked at Sebastien with his rainwater eyes. “I have an offer for you.”
That afternoon, they went together to the same café that had hosted the art show so many years earlier. Jérôme laughed when he stepped through the door, amazed how little it had changed. Sebastien didn’t know what to make of this man as they settled into a corner table, but he soon understood they shared something.
Jérôme explained that it hadn’t been easy leaving Montréal. The bohemian bars filled with artists and students teemed with ideas aching to be explored and expanded. Jérôme had found a place that felt like home. When his father fell ill and his mother became distraught, he knew the occasional weekend visit to Petit Géant would no longer suffice. He told himself it would be temporary.
When it was clear his father’s condition was only going to worsen before it got better, he accepted that his stay in town would be longer than he had hoped. He was a headstrong man, not one to sit on his hands. This was an opportunity for him to leave a positive imprint on his much-maligned hometown.
He decided to open a shop. Part gallery, part portrait studio, part camera store, it would be different from anything the town had ever seen. He wanted Sebastien’s help. Although Sebastien had no wealth to invest, Jérôme treated him like a business partner. From branding to merchandising, all decisions were made together. They decided to name the shop Camera Obscura.
By the time preparations for the grand opening were underway, they were spending nearly every morning, afternoon, and evening together. Their friendship was instantaneous. They shared a feeling of alienation — they were both outsiders in a town that enforced conformity — but Jérôme possessed an optimism that things could change.
It was late one night when they first kissed. It had been an exhausting day of painting the interior walls. Sheets of thick brown paper covered the front windows. Sebastien ran a paint roller down his friend’s back, smearing him from neck to rear with the same mint colour as the newly painted walls. Jérôme retaliated, and it wasn’t long before the two men were rolling across the newspaper-covered floor entangled in each other’s limbs. It was his first taste of a man’s lips, and he liked it. He let Jérôme do things with their bodies he had never done before.
“What got you into photography?” Jérôme asked as they lay on the floor beneath a blanket they had retrieved from the trunk of his car.
“My mother,” Sebastien said, wondering if the answer sounded childish. “We used to have a cheap thirty-five-millimetre camera when I was a kid. We took pictures of everything over the years. There must be at least five big boxes full in her closet. Even now, she insists we print every shot to add to the collection.”
“Life passes by so quickly. Photos give us a way to remember it.”
Sebastien rolled onto his side and draped his arm across Jérôme’s stomach. “I love how cameras can freeze time. The shutter opens and the moment solidifies into something that will remain long after we’re gone.”
Jérôme leaned into him until their foreheads touched.
“Where did you come from, Sebastien Goh?” he said with a smile.
The grand opening of the shop was a success: people actually showed up. Ruby arrived in her favourite red cheongsam. Jérôme’s mother pushed her husband’s wheelchair. They stayed for only twenty minutes, but their son was happy to see them smile.
Half of the room was a gallery space displaying work from artists in the region, including several framed photographs by Sebastien. In the centre of one wall was Jérôme’s adolescent painting of the octopus man, which he had gifted to his new friend. Servers holding trays of delicate hors d’oeuvres circulated, while a quartet of jazz musicians performed in a corner.
“How fabulous,” Sophie said when she arrived with two friends. Sebastien kissed her on the cheek.
Sophie gushed about his new “project,” as she called it, but behind the smile was worry. Sebastien seemed different. There was something in the way he held himself that hinted at newfound contentment. It was unexpected. The weeks leading up to their latest breakup months earlier had been especially rocky. He had been aimless and unfulfilled. She was sure he’d come back to her eventually.
Now, seeing the confident way he spoke to his guests and the smart clothes he wore, she felt the creep of uncertainty. Her eyes scanned the mint-coloured room and his new charismatic friend with suspicion.
Sophie found the photographs a month later. Sebastien had been careless. They were stored loosely in a desk drawer in the back room. He had asked her to watch the shop for thirty minutes while he and Jérôme picked up a set of new shelves. She wouldn’t have found them had she not been snooping, but she sensed something was being hidden from her.
The black-and-white photographs printed on glossy paper displayed the nude bodies of two beautiful men. Sebastien was alone in some of them, a suggestive look in his eyes and hair tousled even more wildly than usual. Both men appeared in most of the images. Foreheads touched. Fingers intertwined. Mouths met skin. They looked happy and in love.
Sophie’s hands shook as she reached for her phone. She didn’t know why she felt the need to capture these images and send them to her closest friend, Chloe. She would say she wasn’t thinking, that she just needed someone’s opinion, but she must have known what Chloe would do.
By the time Sebastien and Jérôme returned to the shop, the images of their secret affair were rushing through town like the torrents of a flood.
By Stephanie Brownell
He says he does not know what comes next
but we are always saying that.
In conversation, lulls are filled with impression
— that is, need to impress.
He says let’s not have plans or hopes
they only get us disappointed
I say desire is worth more to me than risk.
He says we never did pronouns but no,
they were always in the air.
The first time we met, I told him I was everything.
He wasn’t listening closely enough yet.
He was still speaking convenience, to convince.
He says we never did pronouns but
He says he does not know what comes next
with a woman as if I would be different
if I were a man. Bodies fit with bodies or they don’t.
Every night his hands are frantic, making plans and
cupcakes—we need something to do after all.
We cannot lie in bed and stare
each other in the face, strip off
what is not us and lay bare, dripping
anxious for a kiss or touch and
I have the sense he is afraid of me
as if me is what he can see.
Still he says, let us not have plans
they only lead to definitions.
He says he does not know what comes next
or rather he shows it when I bring the conversation
round again, round like the earth and the moon and
my body, which he is still staring at, perplexed.
The sense that I am missing something, long and fleshy,
cradled in my arms like a child that is not a child,
held up like a lion on a mountain top, pride and prince,
is now not only in me but in him.
We go out and we do not have plans.
He says let us not declare or display
affection or any other form of nearness.
I know he is fearing it will erase him,
and fearing, he erases me.
He says he does not know what comes next
and why is it always boys who say that?
What part of me is drawn to certainty because all of me
is uncertain, a wavering that cannot declare or
defend, desire, an absence that is both too much and
too little, spreading toward the center of the earth.
I am a soft, slow animal, again receding.
He is a soft, slow animal in a pen.
What is opening between us is this:
What he has defined, he is bound to disappoint.
What I define, I too deeply defend.
By Marlena Chertock
דַּיֵּנוּ, Hebrew, it would have been enough
I say to
day you are
It is so
own self down.
Not strong, not
not a real
deep down, I
know the truth:
By Merrill Cole
The knock of pale
death at the front door no longer sets
the heart pounding. Carpe diem
has become a poor alibi
for reckless behavior. Shouldn’t he
consider investing for retirement,
stocks and bonds
with those he loves?
The modernist imperative
that poetry be impersonal and make
Classical allusion had been
a defense mechanism
against the story, relentlessly
rammed home, where the hero
dies. Notice no “I”
in that sentence, not, or no longer,
a death sentence. Would that the self
The poet with HIV
might have resisted confessing
the purple details ad nauseum,
collecting notices he couldn’t pay,
when not well enough to work,
the men on the streets noticing
the bruises on his shins
as he sauntered by.
He might have suspected
turning the dead men
he had once fucked into the heroes
of stories that he would roll out,
would be to unfurl phallic
monuments to himself, would be
to betray them (whose breath
heats the back
of his neck as he writes).
By Jona Colson
I didn’t know before you came here
about the hesitation and guilt of leaving.
The eyes, silent and confused,
trying to understand the distance between us at the door.
How many words do you understand?
Sit, stay, quiet, I’ll be back soon?
I always hear the howling behind my back
and your willing whimpers to accept my return
and when I open the door and you come to me, each time
I bend my forehead to yours and ask to forgive so much.
By Kellie Doherty
Eagle River, Alaska, is a small town just outside of Anchorage,
twelve miles north, to be precise.
It’s a place where my sister and I grew up and
a place where my parents grow older and
a place I’ll always call home.
Alaska is a unique state,
all frozen edges to those who don’t understand it
all long dark nights and short cold days
all covered by snow and ice and winter’s unending breath.
But I know better.
Yes, Eagle River winters do have some sharp edges.
The kind that bites at your cheeks, and nose, and fingers,
makes you bundle up in layers and long for a warm drink.
But it also brings crisp fresh air and sparkling scenery,
especially at night under a full moon.
It also brings memories dipped in joy and tipped in frost.
Like the time a moose bedded down in our snow-covered front yard and
stopped my dad from going to work in the morning,
blocking the garage
allowing him to use the well-known and accepted excuse of:
“A moose is in my way.”
The moose eventually wandered into the backyard,
stripping the crimson high bush cranberries my sister and I used to eat,
thinking we were being sneaky while sledding,
our eyelashes covered in ice crystals and
our cheeks a ruddy red.
The moose left that morning by hopping over our fence
and disappearing from view.
I like to think the moose enjoyed the rest and snack.
I like to think it was happy here.
I like to think it called our space its home for a little while
if only for the comfortable snow-crusted yard,
if only for the chilled sweet fruit and frozen bark,
if only for the long dark winter night.
A home, for a little while.
A home, forever, for me.
By Michael Dumlao
Her eyes are my mother’s eyes — almond shaped with double eyelids encasing mahogany-brown pupils that exude a pensive, piercing stare. From her small, round nose, high cheekbones, straight, jet-black hair and smooth, brown skin, she bears the vibrant, resolute features of the women of my vast Filipino family. She wore a cream-colored wool sweater I had just given her after she took her shower, one of several cold-weather items I would lend her in the coming days. As we set the table, poured wine, and prepared dinner, she marveled at the snow that quickly blanketed the world outside my kitchen window. She reflected on the startling contrast to the harsh deserts and arid plains she was racing through only a few days earlier. Weather reports had predicted a late February blizzard that evening, and all signs indicated we would not be disappointed.
Her name is Tala. Through a strange calculus of fate, she is the daughter of my grandmother’s youngest brother, who himself was younger than my mother, which makes her my mother’s cousin and therefore my aunty in our cultural tradition. But because she is almost a decade younger than me, I regard her as a younger cousin. However, looking at her from across the table, I could already tell that whatever she was running away from or running toward had bestowed a gravitas not typical for someone who was barely twenty-two years old.
Tala didn’t seem weary despite having driven across the country from her home in Las Vegas, through Memphis and then Richmond, eventually arriving at my doorstep in Washington, DC. She had called me only a few days prior to ask if she could stay with me a few nights, which itself was surprising as we had not spoken in years. I was already away at university when her family immigrated to America, so we didn’t grow up together. I would mostly see her at holiday gatherings and celebrations, and only in the cacophonous company of our cousins.
When she first called me, Tala didn’t exactly express that her trip was a secret though I intuited something in her voice meant she wanted me to remain discreet. She called me from her stops along the way to let me know she was safe, and I could tell she was more excited than scared of whatever she was headed toward. That first night in D.C., when the plates were cleared, the wine was finished, and thoughts turned to cocktails, she finally relayed her story.
She married her husband when they were both eighteen. I remembered my mother calling me to complain that it was a dry wedding and they had to smuggle alcohol like bootleggers. He was a U.S. Marine who was frequently deployed, leaving her often alone. When he was home, he would spend his time gambling and partying with friends on the Vegas strip, spending their meager earnings at poker tables instead of their mortgage. Eventually, they stopped being able to meet their payments and their house was foreclosed upon. Their separation, then divorce, soon followed, as would the disappointment from the family and a growing sadness in my cousin. Then a job opportunity opened up in D.C., offering a potential escape and chance to start over. Upon finding out she got the position, she sold everything she couldn’t fit in her car and drove away.
As I poured some whiskey, lemon and honey into hot water, I asked her why she considered D.C. That’s when she said, “Well, I knew I needed to get as far away from Las Vegas as I could, but I didn’t want to be completely alone either. Then I remembered that you live in D.C. And I knew of all the people in our family, you were the least likely to judge me for what happened. I mean, you left, too. And I know it wasn’t under the best circumstances either, especially since you’re… well. But you’re surviving and thriving. And I thought, maybe I could do that, too. Start fresh, like you.
“And besides, us black sheep have to stick together.”
That’s what lingered. Those words—black sheep. They stayed aloft in the air even as she continued to tell me about her new job and the places she wanted to explore. While part of me paid attention, a deeper part of me knew that at that moment I had to choose whether to regard those words as a brand of shame or a badge of honor. I decided then that as an out, queer, brown immigrant who left my family to chart my own destiny, I was and am a proud black sheep. But it would take me years to truly define what that meant and to fully comprehend why it was so important that I be one for my family.
As I bid her goodnight, I looked at Tala a little more closely. In her face I saw all the nieces and young cousins in our own family with whom I had always formed a natural kinship. Bright young protégés who called me Uncle or “kuya” (the Tagalog honorific for “big brother”) whom I mentored over the years. Family members who sought me out as an escape and safe harbor from traditions that didn’t always know how to embrace or nurture the divergent or pattern-breaking among us. At the same time, I saw my mother, and her mother, the aunties and the elders, all members of the court of matriarchs who ruled our Filipino clan with stern eyes, unyielding expectations, and fierce embraces. I saw the intentions that our families carried in their frayed suitcases across vast oceans and limitless skies, the villages and heartbreak they left behind, and the uncertainty they faced when they arrived on this foreign American shore. I saw all the times queer children like me had fulfilled our parents’ aspirations by succeeding, and all the ways we betrayed them by living our truth.
Above all, I saw proof that with a new generation’s resolve, our once stubbornly immutable cultures were, indeed, capable of change. I saw hope that one day, black sheep like us might never feel the need to escape. Until that time, I decided to always keep my home and heart open, wine uncorked, and advice ready to flow.
I am a guncle, after all, and it is a role I am honored to play.
So, what — or rather, who — is a guncle? The term refers to “gay uncle,” but here it covers a much wider range: queer godfathers, older cousins, surrogate father figures, and yes, uncles, any queer relative in a position to pass along their wisdom to a younger generation. These include guncles and quncles (queer uncles), to l’aunties (lesbian aunties) and quanties (queer aunties) to everyday queeroes (queer heroes). Within biological families, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ+) people are often cast in the role as the ultimate “black sheep.”
Indeed, as the embodiment of the black sheep, queer people are cast aside, warned about, and frequently erased from memory. For most, this is done with violence and results in deep, life-changing trauma. These experiences condition us to chart our own paths and redefine what it means to be family. To our biological families, we are disruptions to tradition and long-held beliefs. We represent change and evolution in the family tree — that is, when we’re recognized as part of it and correctly identified when our mark is made. But we are also people who are sought out by those who never fit in because we demonstrate what happens — for better or worse — when we break and recreate the molds of expectation.
Because of this, we become beacons for our beloved niblings (the gender-neutral term for nieces and nephews), godchildren, younger cousins and protégés. We are their mentors, career counselors, style consultants, cheerleaders and keepers of the family’s secrets and memories. We are “parent-adjacent” in that we may not have been there for the conception, but we were there shortly after the birth, gripping our sister’s tired hands, holding our brother steady, or keeping the smartphone fixed on the baby held tightly by newly minted grandparents. We buy our protégés their first pair of heels, give them their first sip of champagne, help plot their perfect prom-posal, and then promise to be there should rejection and heartache loom. We unlock the doors to their heritage, provide words of caution born from our mistakes, and teach them how to leave a space more welcoming than how they found it.
Throughout these children’s lives we serve as the cool, nonjudgmental adult they turn to for the stuff they can’t talk to Mom and Dad about. As queer people, we know what it means to hide a secret, to discover the truth about ourselves and find the courage to face the forces that would otherwise tell us to keep quiet. We are there to help them shout that truth from their hearts, just as we did and likely continue to do every day. When we tell them to be themselves, to love themselves, that they are perfect just the way they are, we do so with life-hardened conviction because we ourselves know just how difficult it can be to believe it. And when we tell them we love them, that we will protect and elevate them, we do so with passion and ferocity because they are every bit a part of who we are.
From The Wisdom of Guncles: Stories and Advice on Living Life from a Queer Perspective. Michael Dumlao is based in Washington, D.C. Follow on Instagram at @michaeldumlao. Visit www.thewisdomofguncles.com.
By Sofia Fey
You want to be a good man, the kind that opens doors physical & metaphorical, that worships on sundays, a good man with a good hat, who tips it to his lady & says goodnight ma’am with no more than a peck on the cheek, of course; you want to build her a kitchen island, to have tea on the porch, to be a good man, crack hazelnuts for her in december & bring home each day’s daily bread, bring her a colony of fish that you caught, you want to skin them, heat up the grill and throw them on, watch her pick the bones, you want her bones, you want her muscles to release, to power you like electricity, you want to build the walls to house her wire, to strip them just so, to cease sparks from flight — and like a good man, you tiptoe out of the hallway, leaving the key she made for you on the counter, and like a good man you hail a cab to the river and will never call her again, you’re gone before sunrise, you wash your hands of her and dive into that river, watch wind brush its fingers through tall grass, lay back and let currents wash you over, like a good man, everything is yours.
By Casey Hamilton
Chauncey’s dick was up and standing before he was. There was sleep still stuck in his eyes when he finally committed to opening them. Then he instinctively pulled his phone, still wired to its charger, off the nightstand. Before he ever saw true daylight, he was staring into his unlit phone screen. For him, nearly every morning began here in this darkness.
Chauncey woke the phone up with his thumb. It was nearly eleven o’clock, too late to surprise his mother and meet her for Sunday service like he’d halfway-hoped to do today. She would have liked that.
This slight disappointment dissipated quickly once he caught sight of the list of notifications waiting for him: an email reminding him that his next credit card payment was soon due, a tag in the drunk pic his friend LeMilion had posted last night, and a club text already advertising tonight’s festivities.
And then, there was MENAFTER10. It had missed him while he was sleeping, recovering from his Saturday night out. Six new messages had come in overnight, making his total unread messages 683. Chauncey was all too aware that his flat stomach and fat ass gave him a sort of VIP privilege on the app and that explained his ever-active inbox. Most of the 683 messages he’d accumulated in his years online he mentally discarded upon delivery because they were sent by someone with no pic at all or no pic worthy of his attention.
He tapped the app’s neon-colored icon; it was in the shape of the number ten. The number one was a modelesque male silhouette sporting a beard and a backwards-facing basketball cap. The zero was a fat circle with a tight, tiny hole.
The phone filled with the app’s background of irradiated blackness. It went with its theme: after hours. MENAFTER10’s other colors were various shades of glowing neon. Public pics were bordered in hot pink and a red-light-district-red was outlined around the private ones. Its black and white text alternated inside either dollar bill green or fluorescent violet text bubbles.
With the app open now, Chauncey wasn’t Chauncey Lee. Here, he was redNready69, identifiable only by the pics on his profile. Here, he wasn’t twenty-four, he was twenty-three. MENAFTER10 didn’t require anyone’s date of birth so it was up to each user to update their ages after each birthday, manually. Chauncey hadn’t gotten around to that just yet, so sure, he was twenty-three. This light-skinned man lying in bed cradling his cell phone matched the rest of the stats listed closely if not exactly. He stopped just the slightest bit short of the five foot six he’d generously given himself and there was a four or five pound difference from the hundred and forty-five pounds he weighed online but he wore these extra pounds well and in a way that didn’t really show. As his profile so perfectly put it, Chauncey was a “slim thicc shorty.” And slim-thicc was always in on MENAFTER10.
Chauncey didn’t bother opening the first of the six waiting messages — redNready69 had a very strict “no pic, no reply” policy.
Hey bro, wanna make some $$$…
It was only spam. So he didn’t open the next one either. The third message was legit.
Dry but legit.
Chauncey opened bout2bustb0i’s profile, hoping to find something about him to make up for what he lacked in words.
According to his profile, bout2bustb0i was a twenty-eight-year-old, six-foot-tall “masc top down 4 fun.” With only a headless torso as his profile pic, Chauncey couldn’t argue much against the claim. There wasn’t a lot there, but Chauncey extracted enough from what little bout2bustb0i offered about himself to gather some interest. There was something about the scrawniness of his waist that suggested something bigger lay beneath the band of the black boxer-briefs. His imagination filled in what the pic cropped out. And as that picture grew in his head, so did the formation that protruded perpendicularly from his bikini briefs. He saw new potential in the faceless stranger, so much potential that even a simple “sup” seemed charming enough. And even though bout2bustb0i’s profile stated “no games or lames allowed,” every message, every move, from here on out would be made either to play or get played.
This was MENAFTER10.
bout2bustb0i: just waking up man. horny af
redNready69: same. damn wish i was there
On MENAFTER10, unlocking was about the same as undressing. Chauncey, for a moment, hesitated at this request (or was it a command?) to be the first to get naked. Unlike the stranger he was messaging, Chauncey’s profile pic featured an actual face, a smooth-skinned, shirtless selfie from the shoulders-up, with a wide smile that showed off white, straight teeth. Even with the silver-studded earrings, two to each ear, and the Roman numerals tattoo of his birthday on his shoulder blade, this picture captured remnants of innocence in the yellow-brown hues of his young face.
The second public pic was less decent and showed Chauncey in the sterile light of a bathroom holding a phone in front of a mirror in need of cleaning. He wore only gray and blue boxer-briefs, which showed off an ample ass that stretched the limits of the cotton underwear, as well as his six-pack of abs. His rose-colored lips were curved crookedly upwards as he stared at his own reflection, throwing a sly smirk at himself.
Then there were the private pics: the nudes. The first of these had Chauncey stomach down across the same teal sheets he had draped across the bed now but in dimmer lighting. The underexposure of the light combined with the overexposure of the camera’s flash was harsh but highlighted his soft and shaven muscly backside. The remaining nudes similarly centered around his ass at different angles and positions, each one more exquisite and explicit than the last.
Chauncey unlocked the profile so that bout2bustb0i could see the private pics and confidently messaged: you’re welcome lol
Then he waited for the awe, the adulation. He waited a few seconds more for what was sure to be a drool emoji or maybe a wagging tongue. When those didn’t appear, he waited longer until a minute had passed, then another minute and then a few more.
Chauncey had sent his wholly nude self out into the infinite digital universe and wondered where had it gone. Had his nakedness gone unnoticed? Was it unseen or unimpressive and unworthy of acknowledgement? As familiar as these questions and their implications were to someone with Chauncey’s online experience, they still frightened him. The anxiety he felt as time passed was enough to make him lose his hard-on. He began refreshing the app to update it and show the last time bout2bustb0i had viewed his now fully open, out-on-the-line profile.
Last viewed: 48 seconds ago.
Chauncey blinked twice.
So that was it, he thought. This was one of those guys that liked to play the pic game. This game was played unfairly by those that tricked private pics out of others under the pretense of a mutual exchange. This was exactly why Chauncey usually enforced a strict “unlock 4 unlock” policy. Just as he thought to relock his profile, a new message came through.
And suddenly everything in the world outside the bedroom, the world he hadn’t even walked out into yet, made sense again.
By Courtney Harler
I just ate wonton soup but now I smell rice — starchy fluffy white rice — from the kitchen. The server doesn’t seem to want to take my bill and my credit card to the register. Oh, he has a machine that he can carry with him. How clever. I need to leave before I order some white rice.
Now I’m at the coffee shop. This café has white chocolate dicks in its pastry display case. One giant one and many other little ones, like a papa dick and all his illegitimate baby children. The chalked sign for the dicks says, “Made by a Lesbian.” I order a latte and a bread pudding, though I am tempted by the chocolate dicks. I’m waiting for my lover to text me back. He lives in a different city, a different state. I don’t see him very often. Partly because he doesn’t exist.
Actually, I’m waiting for my kid to swim her ass off. After the soup and coffee, I still have fifty-five minutes to wait until practice ends. This morning, in the car on the way to school, I asked her what she thought of her brother. Her brother has been dead for about fourteen years. I recognize the inappropriateness of this question, especially in the morning, but sometimes, I just need to know. Sometimes I want to talk about stuff other than homework — real stuff.
I have to take this kid to her dad’s tonight for the mid-week visit. Per the divorce decree, he should pick her up and drop her off for their dinner, but I guess I’m nice that way. I guess.
Now I’m listening to this audio book in the car, waiting in the parking lot of the city pool. The narrator speaks for the deceased author: You are just writing, writing along and then bam!, you’re writing about something else entirely. That bam! is like my life. Last year I was married, now I’m not. Fourteen years ago — but let’s not dredge up the past. I don’t feel like talking now.
My lover finally texted back. He said, “There you are!” like he’d been waiting for me, but I doubt that’s true. I guess I just sort of want him to want me. Like the song. I guess.
One night in a downtown dive bar a girl gave me her number on a cocktail napkin. “But I’m not a lesbian,” I almost said. I almost said, “But can’t we just be friends?” In truth, I took her number, tucked it into my purse. The next morning when I woke, I told my daughter, my other older daughter, about getting a girl’s number. Again, somewhat inappropriate, I know, but I live and I breathe too, don’t I?
I only ate one square of bread pudding, though the server brought me three on a long white rectangular plate. Before I left the café, I got a box for the rest. Two kids, two puddings. Hope they like them.
By Brian Malloy
Nighttime in the East Village, or, to be more precise, “Alphabet City.” Some people will tell you not to go east of First Avenue, where you’ll find my neighborhood. There’s Avenue A (All right), Avenue B (Bad), Avenue C (Crazy), and Avenue D (Death). It can be brutally loud or unexpectedly quiet, there can be the soft click-clack of heels on the pavement, or the piercing screams of sirens (Police? Fire? Ambulance?), and it doesn’t matter if it’s a weeknight or a weekend, you never know what you’re going to be in for. Walking home, I can kick empty crack vials into the street, see addicts sleeping in doorways, eavesdrop as the East Vill-ahge artists, outfitted in irony and seeping causticness, make meaning out of their lives on street corners and front stoops. My railroad apartment-a big room, really, with a tub in the kitchen-is on the third floor of a tenement on the ravaged Avenue B side of Tompkins Square. My neighborhood’s home to Puerto Rican families, junkies, gay men, white homesteaders, hustlers, lesbians, bohemians, dealers, the homeless, skinheads, dropouts, artists, drifters, hustlers, rockers, and radical priests who are all indignant about the encroaching regiments of yuppies. Police chased the junkies out of Tompkins Square Park in ’83, but now it’s become an encampment for people with nowhere else to go, some of them bankrupted by AIDS, along with your typical batshit crazy folks, and I wonder how long before they’re cleared out, too. This neighborhood’s like an old black-and-white cartoon, but instead of Felix the Cat or Oswald the Rabbit, there’s Jerry the Peddler and John the Squatter, and in place of clean straight lines and round smiling suns, there’s shards of broken bottles and old used needles.
Seventeen degrees was the high today-cold by New York standards-and I wonder what the Tompkins Square Park regulars will do to keep warm tonight.
My apartment isn’t really my apartment, it’s Frankie’s.
He preferred his full name. I thought that he thought that it made him more interesting in a city of people all desperate to be more interesting, so I always called him Frankie. He was from Philadelphia, so I’d say, like I was Rocky, “‘Yo! Frankieeee!'”
I’d been perfectly happy, or at least reasonably happy, or possibly occasionally happy sharing a place in Hell’s Kitchen with my friend Laurie and our various third and fourth roommates, that is, until I met Frankie. Francesco. I never wanted to live in Alphabet City, but I wanted to be with Francesco all the time because I was in love, am in love, and now that I’m on my own, I can’t work up the energy or put together the cash to find a new place in a better neighborhood.
Francesco is everywhere in the apartment. There’s the Art Deco murals he painted on the walls, mostly of young white men, dressed Depression-era out-of-work, dancing, kissing, and toasting one another with amber bottles of beer raised in their hands. Then, framed and hanging near the doorless bathroom, the sketch of me in pencil. I’m naked, an ankle strategically placed, a pair of Risky Business sunglasses on my face, because I told him it would be cool, but to be honest, I couldn’t hold his gaze as he worked. Something about the way he looked at me, the slight frown, the focused concentration on my exposed skin, made me light-headed. He was everything I had ever wanted, and now that I had him, I spent my days terrified of losing him, waiting for the day he finally realized-like his artsy-fartsy East Vill-ahge friends insisted-that he was too good for me.
He said the portrait was dishonest, on account of the sunglasses-my fault, of course, but honesty’s always been hard for me; it doesn’t run in my family.
He was honest to a fault when we first met. I was on the rebound, and had worked out hard before heading to the bar by myself. I was shyly checking him out as I sucked on the world’s most expensive gin and tonic. Once he noticed, he smiled, stared a hole in my head — and other parts of my body — before walking up and whispering in my ear: Would you like to make some bullshit small talk, or do you want to go to my place and fuck all night long?
I was scandalized, but I was trying to be sophisticated back then, I think all Midwesterners who wind up in Manhattan do the same, at least at first, so I told him, in a voice that I thought made me sound like I wasn’t from Minnesota: Let’s go to your place, fuck all night long, and then make some bullshit small talk.
He asked me if I was Canadian.
I had been looking at him because he resembled Joseph Bottoms, the actor I had a long-term monogamous relationship with as I held his After Dark magazine cover in my left hand. Francesco was stuffed in a crop top and denim cutoffs, and he had the same build and thick, wavy hair as Joseph Bottoms, but without the perfect teeth. In short order I learned that he was wearing his fuck-me-now outfit, otherwise he almost always wore snug black jeans with holes at the knees, along with platformed Doc Martens, that almost made him as tall as me. These he topped off with a black trench coat and white tank tops or ripped tees that exposed a bit of his tight stomach or just a peek of the firm curve of a pec.
That first night with Francesco was a homecoming of a kind. I had been with a few men before, even thought I was in love once or twice, but there had been no one like him. He was uninhibited, unashamed, and, most of all, fun. Sex wasn’t a competition or battle for control or a talent contest. It was fun, and at the same time, as unapologetically earnest as a Hallmark card. In some ways the memory of our first night together is unbearable, I’ll never live that moment in time and space again. In the morning I had chalked my euphoria up to the sex (mind-blowing), and his looks (stunning), and his body (sizzling), though any one of them would have been more than enough for me.
But what made me fall in love so fast and so completely, I quickly came to realize, was his ease: with himself, with the world. This was new to me. The house I grew up in was full of secrets, there was always the risk of discovery or, worse, discovering. I had never in my life been what you would call at ease. Here was a gay man so content with just being who he was, so devoid of insecurity, that I felt like I had discovered an entirely new species of Homo sapiens.
Once he finally figured out that he was in love (with me), the fuck-me-now clothes only came out on our anniversaries. He’d pose in them, trying to make bullshit small talk, as I whistled and shouted, “‘Yo! Frankieeee! Hey, where’s your hat?'”
Brian Malloy is based in Minnesota. Visit www.malloywriter.com.
By Maria Mora
Nate tripped on a pothole, stumbling to his hands and knees. Pain flared at his joints. Sighing, he scrambled back up and wiped his stinging hands against his coat. Hurt made him maudlin and clumsy.
The horizon tilted, and his elbow scraped along the grime-smeared brick as he righted himself. His feet dragged, heavy. Uncoordinated. He couldn’t have jogged if he’d tried.
So much for keeping this pace.
At least he was close to where he needed to be.
On the stoop of Alden’s shop, he doubled over with dry heaves, suddenly grateful for his empty stomach.
“My,” a voice said at his ear. “A lost little boy.”
Nate jerked away, struck by the urge to lean in-and the revulsion that followed. “Alden, you rat.”
Alden caught his wrist and tugged him into his curio shop. “You should keep a better lookout when you’re wandering about.”
He scanned the street behind Nate and slammed the door, setting the chimes off so loudly it made Nate’s eyeballs hurt. Broken-glass suncatchers in the front window cast tiny rainbows all over the shop. Nate’s breath hitched softly, and he ached with more than sickness.
Despite everything, the shop still felt like home. Having a real place to stay had been so much
easier than scrambling to find safe hideouts with the gang.
“You look vile,” Alden said impassively.
He stood a head taller than Nate, willowy and graceful, black hair spilling down his back like ink. He’d been beautiful once, before he’d ravaged his body with chem. Alden wasn’t much older than Nate, but he carried himself like a man three times his age, as if the air around him weighed too much.
“I realize that,” Nate bit out. “I almost got smashed by a train. A girl pushed me out of the way, or I would have been a stain on the tracks.”
“Thrilling,” Alden murmured.
Alden’s grandmother came out from behind a woven curtain. “GEMs don’t grow up,” she announced, laughing like a gull and pointing a knotted finger at Nate. Fran’s face was so wrinkled the folds drooped over her jewel-black eyes. She wore her hair in a neat silvery bun at the top of her head. “I’m not grown,” Nate said, unbothered by the sound of his secret. Fran’s mind had gone long before Nate had met her. No one would believe her if she claimed to know a fugitive GEM.
She poked his ribs and belly as if examining an exotic fruit before turning her attention to a bowl full of faded sequins on the counter. Embroidered robes swayed from her shoulders, hiding the frail angles of her body. Unlike Alden, she had always treated Nate like family-at least when she could remember who he was. His skin stayed warm where she’d touched him.
Alden locked the shop door. He swept his thin arm out like he was putting on a street-corner play, sizing Nate up with an elegant wave. The movement faltered, and he frowned. “You
really do look dreadful.”
“I need Remedy.” Nate crossed his arms and sagged against the counter. “I’m tired.”
The weight of his understatement hung between them. This wasn’t normal exhaustion. He stared Alden down, daring him to acknowledge it. Wondering, for a sickening heartbeat, if he had a part in it.
“But I have guests arriving soon.” Alden curled his long fingers around Nate’s shoulders, his touch icy. “Impatient guests.”
“They can wait.” Nate didn’t want to think about the stuffy basement or Alden’s guests. Alden didn’t sell the moldy herbs in gleaming canisters or glass jewelry glittering around his shop. He sold high-quality chem to anyone with enough credits to buy a few minutes of peace.
Most of the time, Alden’s guests were sweaty and thin and haunted by their hunger. The worst were curiously well-dressed and lingered in the shop, touching everything within reach and sneaking glances at every dusty nook and cranny.
When those people came around, Alden made Nate hide in Fran’s bedroom, surrounded by her silky robes and mildewed books and baskets full of colorful yarn.
Nate squirmed, tugging his shoulders out of Alden’s grip, already feeling like he’d been here far too long.
“And what if I’m impatient?” Alden understood the needs of the fiends who stumbled wild-eyed into his shop-he looked the same way every morning.
His hungry gaze was the perfect cure for nostalgia. Nate fought the urge to storm off. If he did, he’d be dead in days
“You can’t make me,” he said instead.
“I can be persuasive, darling.”
“Not as persuasive as you think.”
Nate only had the upper hand in one way: he’d already left once. Alden’s need, laid bare and tormented, hadn’t been enough to keep Nate around, and he’d finally left him. Nate hadn’t even known if Alden would survive or if his heart would give like the fiends on the street who fell asleep on doorsteps and never woke up.
He’d leave again before he allowed Alden to sink into the suffocating grip of his own desire.
“You haven’t even asked what I’m offering.” Alden kissed the top of Nate’s head and sputtered, gagging like he’d tasted something awful. Which was probably true. Nate hadn’t bathed
The ache behind Nate’s eyes rattled around in his skull with each word. It sapped his anger. All he wanted to do was curl up on the floor and close his eyes before the pain blossomed. He didn’t care how much he sounded like a demanding child. “Just help me, Alden.”
“How do you explain all these visits to your darling Reed?” Alden asked.
Nate bristled, but couldn’t work up the energy to stomp across the room away from Alden’s knowing gaze. Couldn’t do anything except tremble. The thought of Reed waiting for him made shame and desire collide in his blood, a hot-and-cold feeling that didn’t do anything for his headache.
Reed didn’t know what Nate was hiding. Couldn’t know.
“It doesn’t matter what I tell him.”
When they’d first met, Alden had seemed like the wisest, most sophisticated person in the Withers. He flirted with Nate relentlessly, but it was just Alden’s nature. He’d flirt with a lamppost if he thought he could get something from it.
Now they both knew Nate had something to give.
“I think I have a right to know what stories you’re telling about me.” Alden clasped an arm around Nate’s chest and held him still while Fran came close again, sniffing the air and cackling softly.
“He’s sick, my boy.” Her voice rustled like dry paper. “Sick, sick.”
“Please, Alden. It’s not lasting as long.”
“He’s dying!” Fran crowed.
“Enough, Grandmother!” Alden snapped, releasing Nate to shoo Fran through the curtain to her bedroom. He stood in the folds of the blood-red fabric as if wearing a cloak, turning his black eyes on Nate.
“You’re not dying,” he said. It sounded like a question.
“If you won’t let me have Remedy, I’ll go to someone else.” Nate’s voice thinned. “I have to.”
“Do you really think others will go to the great lengths I’ve gone through to keep you safe?” Alden enunciated each word tightly. “Do I need to remind you just how many people would happily snatch you off the street?”
“You don’t care about keeping me safe. You just want to keep me.” Nate pressed his fingers to the ridge of bone at his cheeks. Even his teeth hurt.
“One and the same, sweet thing.”
“Anyone who has Remedy will hand you over to the Breakers the moment you ask for it. They’ll never let you go. You’ll go to the highest bidder before you can beg the Old Gods to end it all.”
“You’ll spend the rest of your life strung up in a basement far less hospitable than mine.” Alden’s steely expression faltered. “They’ll take everything, Natey.”
By Caridad Moro-Gronlier
The cushions were beige,
dinner-partied, lived-on, scrubbed
clean as bleach would allow.
She spoke of remodeling,
zero percent interest at Rooms-To-Go,
how what couldn’t be replaced
could be reupholstered.
We scoured fabric stores for bolts of cloth
dark enough to mask my stains,
strong enough to handle the strain
of starting over, as if perfect
squares of Enchantment Twill
could contain the messiness of living.
At home I slid scissors across material
she pressed into my hands. She watched
as I struggled for straight lines,
as I wept over jagged edges
I could not control.
She taught me to conceal irregularities,
to pin them down beneath
the sting of a staple gun,
smooth new skin over battered innards,
cushion after cushion reassembled,
both of us sure
I too could be remade.
By Patrick Earl Ryan
I drove most of that first day. I could smell him on my fingers, hours after we’d done it. Down a stretch of road marked HURRICANE EVACUATION ROUTE, he told me he was getting pimples again, that’s what kind of young he meant. “I could spell out your name on my face,” he said. “Hell, the middle of my nose. I haven’t gotten zits in ten years.”
We pulled off the road four times and reached down deep into our shorts, jacked one another off and told each other te amo, te amo because we had just learned how to say it. I watched the pimples grow one at a time. There was no stopping them. But I was still thirteen, and Neil could never be thirteen again no matter how many pimples he had. We both knew it. He had big legs that stretched out like magnolia roots into the bottom of the car like he was never going to leave it; and after we passed Gonzales, Baton Rouge, Henderson, I could tell the trip would take its toll on him even if he was only twenty-eight. The top of his head dripped sweat like a leaky faucet, all his worries about us and being in love with me, but I smelled like a stinkbug, that’s what he said.
Qué lindo eres, we practiced together. Finding “beautiful” in our phrase book under sightseeing, meeting friends, useful expressions. Outside, Louisiana sped by us like cop cars and fat mosquitoes. Neil’s freckled arms and legs peeled from his sunburn in that passenger seat with six slashes from Aubrey Clyde’s pocketknife, but it seemed like he was shedding more than skin: his New Zealand woods, his tour guide job. We shared all the clothes I’d been able to muster out of my closet and none of the clothes he brought with him from Auckland. My Bermuda shorts reached down to the middle of his biscuit-colored thighs. My biggest T-shirt hugged his chest like shrink-wrap. His big black duffel bag, full of my PE uniforms and Dickies, bounced back and forth in the back of our El Camino, but neither one of us opened it. The less clothes the better. Neil was sorry he hadn’t brought sunblock though.
“When we hit seventy-seven we can sail for a day and a half,” he said “Clear through, no cops, no RVs, right on through to Las Blancas. Just you and me — but look at this shitter, right smack on the inside of my ear. It’s crazy. That’s what kind of young I mean.”
And it was me who made him young again. My mom said I had some creepy kind of magic in me that I wouldn’t know how to use until I was fifty and had gray hairs on my chin. But that didn’t keep me from wishing. Thinking how there’d be no hitches if we were both teenagers. If he were Aubrey Clyde or the other way around. Besides it seemed so strange to me that a man could love a kid. Especially me with my long ears and puny butt. But here he was rotting away on the inside like a big cavity, and all that was for me.
“We’re not even in Texas yet, silly,” I told him. He was skipping towns like smooth rocks. We wouldn’t be on Hwy 77 for a day and a half. Santa Teresa was another day past that from what I could figure on a map.
“It’s like Clevedon but flat,” he said.
He looked out past the edge of the road and ignored my driving, all what I was saying. Alder and cypress trees, wet sun belly flopping into the Atchafalaya swamp, locusts singing and maybe some tree frogs, too. He told me out in New Zealand he’d flown a genuine World War II Dakota over country just like this except for a thousand hills, and how the Hunua popped up out of nowhere and then there’d be lakes and waterfalls the color of avocados and limes that took the breath out of him. Mountains that made him fear the cold even though it was blazing hot. Neil said he’d take me there and we’d fly that plane, live out a secret life without judge and jury. Just us and the Dakota and maybe a dog. That’s how we could get away.
“But is it legal?” I asked. Keeping under 70. Loving that I was behind the wheel of a real car. Both our seat belts on. We didn’t want to be stopped. No trouble. No getting sidetracked. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have a driver’s license – we’d decided from the beginning that we weren’t going to be pulled over for squat-shit. My mom wouldn’t be home from Florida until Friday. Three full days for her to not start any of her phone-call ruckus. Then we’d be in Mexico by Saturday.
“I have no idea,” he said. “Not even a clue.”
He was Scotch taping playing cards up on the dashboard; I guessed it was solitaire, but I wondered if it was something else. “Hey, ¿Te puedo dar un beso?” He taped up the three of clubs. “It means ‘Can I kiss you?'”
“¿Te puedo dar un beso?,” I said twice. “Maybe… but you gotta let me drive the car every day.” He ran those beautiful hands over my legs. He had twelve or thirteen cards taped up and I pressed on the gas a little too hard, but that didn’t matter. No cops were around for miles. He could’ve done whatever he wanted. I wouldn’t have stopped him.
When we passed a Dairy Queen somewhere close to a place called Mermentau, I remembered I hadn’t fed the bird. But Neil said not to worry about it, birds could go for days without solid food. I smelled him on my fingers again and now he smelled like the skin of a rattlesnake. I’d never even seen a rattlesnake until we left New Orleans that morning and pulled onto the road and then got a flat outside of La Place.
“Okay, but if it dies…”
The flat tire didn’t slow us down much. I was pretty sure I knew how to change a tire; Aubrey Clyde’s brother worked on cars all day Saturdays and I’d watch both of them get greasy black changing tires and pulling out carburetors and revving up engines too loud. I fixed the flat myself, without a hassle, too, while Neil pissed down in the woods and chopped the head off a rattlesnake that snuck up to the car. Holding the wet crowbar over his shoulder, Neil said he’d killed two dozen snakes in his life, but never a rattlesnake.
“Have you ever killed a cockroach?” I asked him. I’d heard cockroaches lived through hell and back, but I figured there weren’t roaches in New Zealand. People from other places always freaked out when they saw them. I don’t like snakes though. I was proud of myself for not being scared. But I didn’t see it when it was alive. It was curled tightly around itself like some kind of spring.
“They eat cockroaches in India,” he told me. “Bet you didn’t know that. Just like we eat raisins or peanuts. Imagine that.”
“My mom compares everything to cooking,” I said.
We passed a truck full of cattle. For two miles everything smelled like shit.
“Christ, you’re so beautiful,” he told me. “Has anyone ever told you that? That you’re so fucking beautiful?”
I didn’t know if I should believe him. Maybe he saw beauty differently than anyone else in the world and then what would that matter? Aubrey Clyde said I was just an average-looking kid with a big brain, but he was drunk as an ant when he said that. But Neil said it to me a hundred times a day.
“You,” I said to him now. “You tell me that too much.”
We were well past Rayne, a little town without any public toilets, and I tried to pay attention to the road signs: Kootsie’s Cajun Dance Hall was back there, the rice festival was three days away on this next exit: Crowley-Eunice. Qué lindo eres was bouncing from one end of my brain to the other because I wanted to say it to him perfectly this time, roll it off my tongue like a peach. The water came right up to the highway around there, pea-soup green and webbed with pipelines and frogs maybe. Frogs were everywhere in Acadia Parish. On all the signs. Fried, baked, blackened. That and rice. I looked at him straight in the eye and said, “I like you, too.”
By Zak Salih
It was Arthur who started it. Who came into my trailer after class one Tuesday looking for his headphones. Who saw me sitting at my desk watching Hiroshima Mon Amour on the television, taking notes for our film unit but also lost in thought. Who stopped and listened with wide eyes to Georges Delerue’s café waltz. Who asked if he could sit and watch for a while, he’d be quiet, he wouldn’t say a word. Who asked the next day, delicately, before class, if we could watch another movie at the end of the school day because his boyfriend was tutoring freshmen and his father was having to pick him up later and later and the library got old after a while. Who asked if we could start by watching Hiroshima Mon Amour from the beginning.
Thursday afternoon, Arthur knocked on my trailer door, came inside, and pulled a red paper envelope out of his messenger bag. J’Accuse, he said. The remake. A little over an hour later, his phone buzzed. Dad’s here, he said. To be continued, I said, pressing pause on the remote. Arthur waved goodbye. The trailer door shut. I took a deep breath, as if finally allowed to rise from the ocean depths for air.
The next week, before the Wednesday LGBT group meeting (the only weekday afternoon we didn’t watch movies together), I gave Arthur a handwritten list of films on lined legal paper. Jules and Jim. The 400 Blows. The Red Shoes. Faust. Metropolis. The Music Room. Ivan’s Childhood. The Last Emperor. The Leopard. The Magnificent Ambersons. The Graduate. This is a lot to watch, Arthur said. Can we get through all this? I handed the list to Arthur. You might have to watch some on your own, but we can try. Arthur gave the list back to me. Mark your favorites, he said, and we can watch those together. I did as I was asked, with joy. Arthur took the marked list back to his desk and tucked it into his messenger bag like a soldier securing his marching orders. A minute later, Steph and Juan arrived together, as they always did. While the students talked among themselves, I sat at my desk, looking periodically out the window at the early April afternoon thrumming with energy. You could sense the new leaves and flowers waiting to burst from the trees and undergrowth. You could hear the song of birds back from southern winters. You could feel the sun growing more generous with its warmth.
One day, I asked Arthur what he was reading in Mr. Watts’s English class. Arthur handed me a slim paperback of Greek myths. The following afternoon, we started Black Orpheus. Every time
Arthur came into class now, he’d cry out Orfeu! and I’d respond with Eurydice! We’d break out into private laughter while the other students in the room sat there, perplexed. That evening, turning onto my street, I saw the flash of Arthur and his boyfriend on their bikes, speeding past me toward the main road. I rolled down my window, but by the time I craned my head out to cry after him — Eurydice! — they’d rounded a bend and disappeared. It felt wrong to follow them any farther than that.
I began to stay late at work, later than usual, grading practice exams, making up for the time I lost watching films with Arthur. Cool spring air came in through the open windows of the trailer, carrying with it the call and cry of lacrosse players from the nearby fields. At half past seven, I looked up from my desk and started when I saw Arthur still sitting there. No. Not Arthur. His purple hoodie, draped on the back of a desk chair. I walked over and looked down at the garment, felt the tenderness of the trailer’s floor under my feet, imagined the body, more familiar to me now in the past several weeks, fitting inside the limp sleeves. Limbs full of youth and vigor, limbs that defended their owner from bullies, limbs that curled around the waist of another boy. I looked around, then tried to put the hoodie on. It was far too small. I carried the garment over to my workbag as if it were the drapery of a long-dead saint. I’d take it home, give it to Arthur the next day. No sense in some errant janitor thinking it was up for grabs.
I thought about it for the rest of the evening. While finishing up my grading. While driving home through a rain shower. While eating a sandwich in the living room and watching the television replicate the same news stories I’d seen on my computer and phone all day: a missing senior citizen in Gaithersburg; protests outside the Old Post Office with its banner reading trump coming 2016; the week’s second dead celebrity. While taking my evening shower. While making my final rounds of the house, checking locks, checking lights, checking windows. While unmaking the bed. While stacking the decorative pillows in a perilous pile on the floor. Then I did it. I took the second pillow, the same one Jake used to rest his head on, and turned it so it lay on the bed like a torso. I went to the kitchen table where the hoodie lay folded and carried it — so heavy now! — into the bedroom. Then, as if dressing an infant or dying parent, I slipped the hoodie around the pillow, pulled up the zipper, and folded back the empty sleeves. I stepped back for a moment to see what I’d done, to admire this strange, limbless trunk. Then I got into bed, turned off the light, and after several moments lying still in the dark wrapped my right arm around the lower half of the pillow and pulled it into me. I took a greedy breath. A cologne I couldn’t properly place, bargain-basement laundry detergent. Mild sweat. A musk like cigarette smoke. Maybe Raymond’s? I thought of the boyfriend, who’d once dipped his head into a Wednesday group meeting but otherwise kept to himself, who mostly met Arthur afterward. Several times, I caught them holding hands while walking to Mr. Ayer’s waiting car. This, I thought, clutching the pillow, is what it must be like for Raymond to bury his face into Arthur’s head of hair, to hold his tired body, to know him in a way I never could and never would. Cutting through the shame of all this was an envy so sharp and jagged it could easily be mistaken for rage. I wanted Arthur. No. I wanted to be Arthur, because if I were Arthur, I wouldn’t be myself. If I had his life, then I wouldn’t have to have my own. Thinking of the two boys slumped into one another on the living room couch watching the movies I’d recommended, I clutched the pillow tighter. Outside, rain drummed against the bedroom windows like a warning.
The next afternoon, I returned the hoodie. You left this in class yesterday, I said. Without a word, Arthur shrugged the hoodie over his body. I caught a slice of belly, a thinner slice of green underwear. I was tense as I led the class through another round of practice questions and identification drills. Title the work, name the artist, date the piece, describe the style, identify the movement. I expected Arthur to sniff some lingering scent of what I’d done, expected him to get up on his desk like an Edgar Allan Poe maniac and stab me with an accusatory finger. Arthur, in his purple hoodie, stared at the front of the room with sleepy eyes. He has no idea, I thought. No idea at all. I couldn’t decide whether I was more relieved or hurt by this.
By Pamela Sumners
Now, Supreme Court, I will use my outdoor voice for choices
you made for me. You see, I want to have my cake and eat
it too. I want layers and layers and layers, gooey butterscotch
and groom’s cake, too, and I want a pediment love topping
it all. I want it to read, in sediment, “Equal Justice Under Law.”
I want my big gay wedding cake decorated in piggish, lardy florets,
one for every corner, and I want it to be so huge that Texas women
seeking the heavens by their hair will have a handy subterfuge.
I want a cake so layered that Stonehenge and Stonewall are there.
I want a cake that has a stolen verse of Leviticus curse, and just
more Texas hair. I want a cake with pictures of Jerry Falwell, either
Jr. or Sr. — I don’t much care and hey, well I’d prefer neither.
I want a big, gorgeous ee cummings mudluscious sound of you
putting your hand in mine when finally, I get to marry you after 30 years.
We had no cake.
We had to take the chance we could, at the city hall, while the window
was still open. But I’d like my reception, my gooey-butter cake, and
I will still eat cake, whether the Supremes likes it or fights it. I’m hungry.
Pamela Sumners is based in Missouri. Visit www.pamelalsumners.com.
By John Whittier Treat
January 10, 2019. The day I quit. No more Truvada, no more blue pills. Now, a few weeks later, I begin to understand why I did something none of us is supposed to do. Go off my meds. We were going to put the whole world on Truvada, right? Yet, though many things were hard for me to give up when the time came, this one was easy. Not because it meant a end to the hassles with an insurance company that didn’t want to pay up, or the need to take it without fail each day, but because of something else.
I am a gay man now in his sixties, which means I am the demographic that got hit hard by the reality of premature mortality after years of sexual freedom. Sure, there were STDs in the 1970s, I had them, but a shot in the rear made them go away. You remember, if you’re my age, when things changed. When, after a youth spent exploring, something unanticipated surprised us at the end of it. In early-eighties New York, before I fled to the West Coast thinking it would be different there, friends were falling ill and dying either quickly or slowly. At first we didn’t know what to do. Throw away the poppers, stop going to the baths, give up sex entirely? If Truvada had been invented then, who wouldn’t have gone on it? Who wouldn’t still be on it today? How many more of us would still be alive?
But it wasn’t available then, and once we figured out what safer sex might be, I and others who chose to set about to master it. The work was cerebral, a matter of will. A decision to pursue fewer hook-ups, or seek monogamy. Come on me, not in me. Dental dams? Gave ’em a try, but it was easier to give up certain pleasures altogether. The real challenge was always condoms. Who in the world wanted to suit up? It took time, but finally, yes, I succeeded: I learned to eroticize condoms. The sound of a foil envelope being ripped open meant that something fun was soon to follow. It worked.
In hindsight, this might have been a kind of self-hypnosis. In fact, I am sure of it. I have used the same technique to stop other practices of self-harm, from too many cocktails to too few fruits and vegetables. I was a poster boy for safe-sex and safe-a-lot-of-things. It was hard work to stay uninfected in the 1980s and 1990s, and I don’t underestimate dumb luck in all of it, but eroticizing protection is, I am positive (because aren’t all?), what has kept me alive. But not entirely whole.
The not-whole part came clear when PrEP entered the scene. Oh, not for everyone: younger gay men embraced it, a way to do something always denied them from the start of their woke sexuality: fucking raw. Sure, the brochures told us to keep using rubbers in addition to the prescription. There were still nasty things out there. The ones we knew about and the ones, like HIV a million years ago from a young person’s point of view, might come out of nowhere to ambush us. Again.
Then this happened. Happily partnered, I nonetheless had an entirely innocent and safe evening with another gay man. The upshot? I wondered if such encounters might happen again. Should I prepare for that happenstance, however remote, of it not being so innocent or so safe, by “going on the pill”?
So I did.
Despite my realization that a whole slew of unhappy things could happen once fluids are shared, I found myself yearning to do all the risky things I had done in the old days. My self-hypnosis, which I thought was something hardwired into me, went flying out the window. I did things I never thought I would do. No one stopped to ask me if I wanted to use rubbers or gloves; we just did without, wordlessly. Please don’t tell me you’re different, though of course some of you may be: mounting evidence suggests you’re in the queer minority these days. Gonorrhea and syphilis are on the rise. We are returning to the sex lives we had before AIDS in this supposedly “post-AIDS age,” in part because the majority of gay men screwing around these days do not remember a time before a lethal virus, before the day when one or two deaths in your perilously near vicinity changed everything for you.
While on PrEP, my periodic, mandated tests came back negative. Negative for everything. Each time. I was lucky. But if they hadn’t, I would have had no one to blame but myself. Not that I have no reason to still be worried. For all I know, I or my partners may be infected with something the doctors haven’t identified because no one has come to them with symptoms yet. You know what? There is no test for everything, because we do not know what everything is and we never will. For my generation, Truvada risks undoing the defenses the first years of the epidemic demanded we erect. And have kept us alive.
I had a decision to make. Keep going on PrEP? No. I had lived through too much terror and misery years ago. I was not going to go through that again, no matter how small the odds. This is the burden that a memory of that time has bequeathed the gay men of my generation: I do not trust any assurances given us.
The day of my first clinical appointment in the new year, I called in and said, no need. I’m going off Truvada. Thanks for the ride. I am not going to let the promise of near immunity from HIV tempt me to use my body the way I once had. I need to remove that temptation from my life — my sex life, to be specific, but with lessons for all the ways I now intend to live. And so, I ended the temptation by going off the blue pill, and its exaggerated promises of immunity from harm.
I know this is a decision that may make more sense for gay men my age than younger ones, because we have a different history: a history that makes me and my cohort suspicious of words like “undetectable,” because we know not everything is detectable. I am happier now. If presented with the opportunity for a good time in the future, there’ll be protection present. Latex, barrier protection: the best defense we still have for what lurks out there — both the things for which we have names, and the things for which we do not yet.
By Anne Marie Wells
trying to remember
when my vision stopped
working and how
I hadn’t noticed.
Then you showed
yourself to me
in braille, told me
to close my eyes
and just feel.
OutWrite 2021 will be held virtually from Friday, August 6 to Sunday, August 8. For more information and a full schedule of events, visit www.thedccenter.org/outwrite.
Follow OutWrite on Twitter and Instagram at @outwritedc.
These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and MetroWeekly.com remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!